Rowley Walter Murphy

January 1, 2003 by Jennifer Morse

Seamen on Jetty Being Instructed on Bends and Hitches.

Rowley Walter Murphy was a precise artist. Every painting was carefully rendered and demonstrated his love affair with ships and Canada’s World War II navy, and each painting was one more opportunity to explore the moods of our lakes and oceans.

Born in Toronto on May 28, 1891, Murphy studied at the Toronto Technical School, the Central Ontario School of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. He taught at the Ontario College of Art from 1931 until he joined the war effort and was employed painting ship camouflage designs from 1941­42.

At least three ships were painted with his designs, namely His Majesty’s Canadian Ship Hamilton, HMCS Annapolis and HMCS Assiniboine. His designs were most effective in the daytime, but as night camouflage became increasingly important, the Hamilton and the Annapolis were repainted. For the next few years he created War Records drawings and paintings, and in June 1943 Murphy became the first official war artist of the Royal Canadian Navy.

Murphy described what it was like to paint on board HMCS Saguenay, a WW II destroyer. “A destroyer’s decks have none of those workable spots for painting which are to be found in every freighter, though depth charges, containing 450 pounds of high explosive, frequently make fairly useful seats from which

Fire Fighting Practice, Esquimalt.

to sketch. The speed of a destroyer is often so great that the blast of air which tears past makes the control of a canvas or board very difficult. For this reason, all watercolour paper must be mounted. The air is usually full of spray…which spreads watercolour washes most unexpectedly; and the vibration from her powerful engines and propellers is frequently so great that putting line or brush stroke on paper or canvas is often an exciting gamble…perhaps the landsman will realize that painting at sea in wartime becomes simply a matter of what wind, weather, the enemy and the ship herself make possible,” the artist wrote.

After the war, Murphy returned to teaching at the Ontario College of Art. His first public show was in New York in 1919 and his last exhibit was held four months before his death in February 1975.

His wife once said that her husband had three loves: “Art, water, me. In that order.”

Murphy was one of those rare individuals who found his calling in childhood and was lucky enough to live it.

War artist Rowley Murphy loved ships and the role they played in Canada’s navy.

Email the writer at: writer@legionmagazine.com

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Many of the Canadian War Museum’s ­holdings are ­available in reproduction at affordable prices. For more information, contact Image Reproduction Services, Canadian War Museum, 1 Vimy Place, Ottawa, ON K1R 0C2; tel: 1-819-776-8686; fax: 1-819-776-8623; e-mail: Imageservices@warmuseum.ca

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